Critiquing 101

The very best way to improve as a photographer does not involve any particular piece of gear or course of study, nor does it involve apprenticing yourself to a master photographer. Impoverishing yourself by working on nothing but photography as something of a photographic “monk” will not do it, either. While all of these things may improve your photography, the best way is much simpler, yet for many photographers it seems much harder.

This originally appeared as Critiquing 101 on the B + H web-site.

The best way to improve as a photographer is to make lots of photographs and then critique them, in order to learn what worked and what didn’t. The long-term growth comes when lessons learned from one set of critiqued photographs are applied to the next session of photographing.

As you can imagine, the hardest part of this process, for most photographers, is critiquing their own work.

That is understandable, since each photographer has an obvious emotional investment in the images they make. Our photographs are our creations, almost our “children,” so we can sometimes be irrational about them. Also, the actual making of an image often has an emotional component, typically in terms of the photographer’s connection to the person, place or thing being photographed.

The stereotypical example of this is pet photographs. We all love our dogs and cats. We are similarly sure that others will love our photos of our animals as much as we love the animals themselves. The cold hard fact is that most pet photos are very compelling to the pet owners and equally boring to the rest of us. To seriously analyze and critique our photographs, we need to get past the same kind of emotional bonds that we have with our images (or the subjects in those.)

I have blogged about on critiquing a fair amount. You can read those at:

davidhwells.com/blog/2010/04/16/how-do-you-critique-photographs/

davidhwells.com/blog/2010/01/25/my-favorite-part-of-my-favorite-class/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/12/21/thoughts-on-getting-feedback/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/05/11/the-importance-of-portfolio-review-events-part-two/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/05/08/the-importance-of-portfolio-review-events-part-one/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/04/27/the-art-of-editing-the-editing-of-art/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/01/19/how-i-learned-to-critique-photographs/

I have also podcasted on critiquing a fair amount. You can view those at:

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/12/30/an-introduction-to-critiquing-photographs/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/12/02/an-editing-exercise-part-two-of-two-parts/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/11/18/an-editing-exercise-part-one-of-two-parts/

davidhwells.com/blog/2009/06/17/editing-and-critiquing-photographs-of-india/

In my workshops, I go through an exercise with my students where we consider:

  • How do you “Critique” photographs?
  • Saying “wow,” “neat” or “cool” is not critiquing photographs.
  • We need a common language for critiquing photographs.
  • We need to be able to discuss the photographic tools, elements and techniques the photographer used, successfully or unsuccessfully, to make the image that communicates their idea. This is regardless of photographic style, media, genre, format, etc.

The criteria that I teach in my workshops and I use when I critique photographs include:

  • How is light used? Is it harsh, soft and from what direction?
  • How is time used? Is a high shutter speed or slow shutter speed used?
  • What is the photographer’s position/angle?
  • What lens is used? Wide Angle? Telephoto? Normal?
  • Is the white in the image “managed?” As viewers our eyes go to white first, so the best photographers manage how they use white.
  • Is pattern, line or texture used?
  • How is focus used and what is the point of focus?
  • What compositional elements are used, such as negative space?
  • What, if any, framing is used to direct the viewer’s attention in (or out?)
  • Is the orientation, horizontal or vertical, working?
  • Are each of the elements listed above used appropriately/effectively to improve the message of the image or are they misused and hindering the photographer’s communication?

These are my starting points. Nothing more. They are not absolutes nor are they “rules.” Most people find that using these as starting points helps them to critically analyze images. When looking at their own work, these can help them get past the emotional connection to the image that usually overwhelms their critical skills.

The irony is that most photographers are good at looking at the work of other photographers, whether pros or peers. Most photographers lose that unbiased perspective when looking at their own work.

How each photographer gets around this challenge is the key to serious growth as a photographer. Some people do this by having their work critiqued by other photographers, whether peers or pros. That is a great way, though the latter can be costly. 

The first step that I recommend is reading/viewing some of the blog entries and podcasts listed above.

Then, try to internalize the criteria for critiquing also listed above. Finally, look at some photographs and analyze them critically. Ideally, start with the work of others and eventually look at your own work. 

Like so many things in photography, learning to critique is a process, not a destination. Even if you never achieve “mastery,” your eye for critiquing and for photographing will be much better for having gone through the process.

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